Ronald C. Breslow

Born: March 14, 1931 | Rahway, NJ, US
Died: Wednesday, October 25, 2017 | New York, NY, US
Photograph of Ronald Breslow

 Courtesy of Douglas Lockhard, CHF Collections

Ronald Breslow grew up in Rahway, New Jersey, the son of a physician. Max Tishler, a family friend, helped to pique Breslow's interest in chemistry. In high school, Breslow entered the Westinghouse Science Contest, which enabled him to meet like-minded teenagers. He entered Harvard University, graduating with his AB in chemistry in 1952, having attended chemistry courses taught by Louis Fieser and Paul Bartlett, and having conducted  research with Gilbert Stork on the structure of cedrene. Breslow earned his PhD in chemistry in 1955 for his work on magnamycin under R. B. Woodward. In 1956, Breslow joined the faculty of Columbia University, where he has worked on a variety of subjects, including thiamine, cyclopropenyl cation, cyclodextrins, and electron transfer. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0181
No. of pages: 90
Minutes: 275

Interview Sessions

Leon B. Gortler
19 March and 9 April 1999
Columbia University New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Ronald Breslow begins the interview with a discussion of his family life and background. He grew up in Rahway, New Jersey, the son of a physician. Max Tishler, a family friend, helped to pique Breslow's interest in chemistry. In high school, Breslow entered the Westinghouse Science Contest, which enabled him to meet like-minded teenagers. Breslow entered Harvard University, graduating with his AB in chemistry in 1952. He discusses chemistry courses taught by Louis Fieser and Paul Bartlett, and his research with Gilbert Stork on the structure of cedrene. Breslow received a master's degree in medical science from Harvard in 1953, and he discusses the uniqueness of the program. He continued his graduate studies with R. B. Woodward, earning his PhD in chemistry in 1955 for his work on magnamycin. He discusses his graduate school colleagues and his post-doc with Alexander Todd. In 1956, Breslow joined the faculty of Columbia University, where he has worked on a variety of subjects, including thiamine, cyclopropenyl cation, cyclodextrins, and electron transfer. He discusses his colleagues, his collaborations, and his cancer research. Breslow further addresses changes at Columbia, Columbia's chemistry department, and his involvement in the American Chemical Society. He concludes with a discussion of his consulting activities and reflections on his family and career. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1952 Harvard University AB Chemistry
1953 Harvard University MA Medical Sciences
2016 Harvard University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

University of Cambridge

1955 to 1956
National Research Council Fellow

Columbia University

1956 to 1959
Instructor, Department of Chemistry
1959 to 1962
Associate Professor of Chemistry
1962 to 1967
Professor of Chemistry
1967 to 2000
Samuel Latham Mitchell Professor of Chemistry
1992 to 2000
University Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1966

Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1966

Fresenius Award, Phi Lambda Upsilon

1969

Baekeland Medal, American Chemical Society

1969

Mark van Doren Medal, Columbia University

1972

Centenary Medal, British Chemical Society

1974

Harrison Howe Award, Rochester Section, American Chemical Society

1977

Remsen Prize, Maryland Section, American Chemical Society

1978

Roussel Prize in Steroids, Roussel-UCLAF, France

1980

James Flack Norris Prize in Physical Organic Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1984

T. W. Richards Medal, Northeast Section, American Chemical Society

1987

Arthur C. Cope Award, American Chemical Society

1988

Kenner Award, University of Liverpool

1989

Nichols Medal, New York Section, American Chemical Society

1989

Award in Chemical Sciences, National Academy of Sciences

1990

Allan Day Award, Philadelphia Organic Chemists Club

1990

Paracelsus Award and Medal, Swiss Chemical Society

1991

National Medal of Science

1999

Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society

2010

Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry

Table of Contents

Family Background and Education
1

Growing up in Rahway. Father's medical practice. Max Tishler. Growing interest in chemistry. Support of mother. Relationship with sister. Westinghouse Science Contest.

College Years
4

Decision to attend Harvard. Louis Fieser. Chemistry courses. Paul Bartlett. Research with Gilbert Stork. Work on structure of cedrene. Entering graduate studies in medical science. Decision to get PhD in chemistry. Research with R. B. Woodward. Structure elucidation of magnamycin. Edwin Ullman. Colleagues. Andrew Kende. Ed Wasserman. Post-doc with Alexander Todd. DNA research.

Family
12

Meeting wife (Esther). Wife's work on base pairing. Children.

Chemical Research
15

Job offer from Columbia. Research on thiamine. Physical organic work. Cyclopropenyl anion. Collaborations. Free radical catalysis. Cyclodextrins. Cytochrome P450. Hydrophobicity. Electron transfer. Work with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Institute. Collaboration with National Cancer Institute.

Columbia University
49

Controversy over Barnard College. Role in bringing William McGill to Columbia. Changing emphasis to undergraduates. Chairmanship of chemistry department. Improving facilities. Colleagues. Importance of teaching. Publishing.

American Chemical Society
57

Becoming president. Chemistry Today and Tomorrow. Importance of public understanding.

Conclusion
60

Consulting. DuPont. Schering-Plough. Synvar. General Motors. Board of The Rockefeller University. Future of chemical sciences. Hobbies. National Medal of Science. Reflections on research. Relationship with students. Family. Future of physical organic chemistry.

Notes
79
Index
82

About the Interviewer

Leon B. Gortler

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds AB and MS degrees from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Harvard University where he worked with Paul Bartlett. He has long been interested in the history of chemistry, in particular the development of physical organic chemistry, and has conducted over fifty oral and videotaped interviews with major American chemists.